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Four things to keep in mind when supporting a friend in grief

My father lost his battle with cancer 15 years ago. He was 59. One of the most confusing dynamics of his death were the varied responses and reactions of my friends. Many responses were wonderful. But many were frustrating. Some were even hurtful.

One of the more challenging aspects of grief is how to support a friend or family member who has experienced intimate loss. The good news is that there are skills and approaches that we can learn in order to be more supportive and helpful for friends in grief. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we try to support a friend who has experienced intimate loss:

1. Be in touch with our own anxieties

One of the most important aspects of supporting a friend in grief is to be aware of the ways that their grief triggers our own fears. Many of us simply don’t know what to do with grief. Which makes sense because we live in a society that goes to great lengths to avoid and deny the reality of death. When someone close to us has experienced intimate loss it brings death really close to home: After all, if tragedy can happen to them then it can happen to us, right? This can be a terrifying revelation that upends our illusions of stability, safety, predictability and control. If we don’t get in touch with our anxieties then our attempts to support can degenerate to frantic attempts to make the bereaved feel better, fix the situation or avoid it altogether.

Following my father’s death, random encounters with friends in grocery stores would often result in them awkwardly dancing around the obvious situation–talking about weather, baseball, church–anything except my recent loss. I get it. We do this because we are afraid of “bringing it up” and “making it worse.” But grief can be isolating. Avoiding the issue reinforces the sense of isolation. The antidote is to be seen and known–to have one’s reality named and honored. When supporting friends in grief we need to be aware of and manage our fears. Realistic appraisal of our own mortality is not a fun process, but it can be very healthy and even liberating.

2. Don’t try to make them ‘feel better’

I attended a funeral several years ago. I overheard someone say “if you’re sad right now, you’re really just selfish and making this more about you– because he’s just fine right now!” This and many other damaging and misguided statements are said under the guise of helping the bereaved ‘feel better.’ Some of the more common phrases that fit this criteria are:

  • “You can always have another child,”
  • “They are in a better place now,”
  • “God must have wanted another angel”
  • “At least he died doing something he loved”

Unfortunately this list can go on and on.

These ill-advised statements are often an attempt to manage one’s own fears and discomfort (see point #1). The more helpful–and challenging–thing is to simply be present and say little. Statements like “I have no words” or “I love you and I am so so sorry” tend to be much more helpful–primarily because they are true. These statements give space for the person to feel how they are feeling and not feel blamed for ‘doing it wrong.’

3. There is no ‘getting over it’ or ‘moving on’

When a friend is in pain we naturally want to make it better. The hard truth is that we are forever changed by some of the things that happen to us. When it comes intimate loss there is no “getting over it” or getting “back to normal.”

In her book “It’s ok that you’re not ok: Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand,” grief expert Megan Devine writes: “If we talk about recovery from loss as a process of integration, of living alongside grief instead of overcoming it, then we can begin to talk about what might help you survive.” Eventually we can take steps forward–not in ‘moving past’ the grief, but in moving forward with the grief. The goal, ultimately, is not to ‘get back to normal’ but learning to eventually carry grief as we begin to move forward.

4. Be a “credible witness”

Grief expert, David Kessler, argues that the most important dynamic for grief to be processed well is empathic connection with another person who is willing to accompany the bereaved in their grief. Keller calls these people “credible witnesses” because they are able to be present and bear witness to the searing pain of traumatic loss without trying to fix it or “make it better.” Being with a person in pain is not easy. It forces us to confront our own fears. It is inconvenient. We may feel rejected. The truth is that nothing we do or say will make it better in the short term. A person in grief needs space to feel how they feel and to be seen and known without feeling that they are ‘doing it wrong’ or that they should feel better.

Grief is a complicated process that demands time, patience, understanding and active work for the bereaved as well as supporters. My hope is that more of us will grow in our ability to accompany friends and family through the searing pain of intimate loss. By becoming a ‘credible witness’ our friends will find a softer place to rest and be given the healing gift of empathy and presence.

Additional Resources:

There are many helpful books. Two that I recommend are:

Additionally, there are many good podcasts and Ted talks. I recommend:

  • The messy truth about grief” – Ted Talk by Nora McInerny
  • The “Grief Out Loud” podcast by the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families These interviews include survivors, experts and others who have experienced grief in myriad ways.
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